Walking with Gorillas with Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka
On Tuesday, May 2, 2023, the Cornell Wildlife Health Center (CWHC) partnered with the student-led Cornell Zoo and Wildlife Society (ZAWS) to host Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka as a special speaker at Cornell University. While perhaps best known for being Uganda’s first wildlife veterinarian, Dr. Kalema-Zikusoka is also the founder of Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH), a Uganda-based nonprofit, and Gorilla Conservation Coffee, a social enterprise offshoot of Conservation Through Public Health. She was in the United States to promote her new book: Walking with Gorillas: The Journey of an African Wildlife Vet.
Though she had not visited Cornell in 14 years, Dr. Kalema-Zikusoka spoke about her close ties with the Cornell community, even crediting Dr. Dwight Bowman, a professor of parasitology at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine (CVM), with donating the first microscopes to CTPH. She acknowledged Dr. Steve Osofsky, Jay Hyman Professor of Wildlife Health & Health Policy at CVM and the CWHC’s director, with helping her raise awareness around and funding interest in CTPH when it was first established 20 years ago. Dr. Kalema-Zikusoka also mentioned several Cornell graduates who had done externships with her as students, including William Fugina, DVM ’19, whom she still collaborates with on One Health research.
Cornellians mirrored her enthusiasm. “The standout attendance at this talk underscored the passion that the Cornell community at large has for wildlife conservation and One Health. It was so thrilling to be in a lecture hall bursting with excitement,” third-year Cornell veterinary student Alex Levitskiy said of the lecture.
Carolina Baquerizo, also a third-year Cornell veterinary student, was excited to reunite with Dr. Kalema-Zikusoka after spending the summer working with CTPH in Uganda. “Dr. Gladys welcomed me to Uganda with open arms. I felt like part of the Conservation Through Public Health family in a matter of days. The mentorship from her and her team has prepared me for a career in the field working towards wildlife conservation and public health initiatives. She is so driven, funny, and kind. I can only hope to adopt such qualities as a conservationist in my future career. I want to think Dr. Gladys followed me back from Uganda to Cornell, but I know she is loved by many across the United States.”
After a heartfelt introduction from longtime colleague Professor Osofsky, DVM ’89, Dr. Kalema-Zikusoka spoke to a packed CVM lecture hall about her life, career, and ongoing projects. She recalled being infatuated with primates since childhood, and watching a nearby vervet monkey as a girl and “feeling that I wasn’t playing alone.” She went on to revive her high school’s chapter of the Wildlife Club. Her fascination with wildlife ultimately led her to pursue veterinary medicine, studying at the Royal Veterinary College and going on to pursue advanced residency training from North Carolina State University.
When she began her career, Ugandan wildlife populations had been decimated after years of political unrest. “I felt like I wanted to bring back the wildlife,” Kalema-Zikusoka shared. To do so, she took a job with the Uganda Wildlife Authority after advocating for the creation of a wildlife veterinarian position. She has been working to support wildlife–gorillas in particular–ever since. In pursuit of this mission, she has also turned her attention to supporting local communities and fostering better relationships between wildlife and local communities.
“We’ve realized you can’t keep the wildlife healthy without improving the health of the people,” she said. This strategy has included providing healthcare and education to people living in the vicinity of gorilla habitats, enhancing food security for local communities, and advocating for responsible tourism. “When you improve the health of the local communities you improve their attitudes towards conservation because you’ve shown them that you also care about them, not just about the plants and the wildlife. The people of Uganda are now seeing gorillas as their future.”
By sharing her personal conservation and leadership journey that has been shaped by One Health, Dr. Kalema-Zikusoka hopes to inspire audiences to protect wildlife and create a brighter future for endangered species and ultimately ourselves. Attendees were able to meet Dr. Kalema-Zikusoka afterward and get a copy of her book signed.
Written by Colleen Sorge ’20, DVM ’24
Photos provided by Carolina Baquerizo, DVM '24